A simple jour sans or a sign of a deeper malaise? Neither Vincenzo Nibali nor his Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli seemed quite sure what to make of the ten seconds the Italian conceded to his overall rivals on the final haul to the line at Mûr de Bretagne on stage 8 of the Tour de France.
As anticipated, the finale on the "Breton Alpe d’Huez" didn’t provoke the same level of separation among the favourites as the Mur de Huy did on stage 3. Indeed, Nibali was the only one to lose ground when he was surprisingly distanced from the leading group as the gradient gradually began to ease in the final 700 metres.
Nibali crested the summit in 30th place on the stage, 20 seconds down on stage winner Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 10 behind race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC). He slips a place to 13th overall, and is now 1:48 behind Froome.
"It was a bad day and I didn’t expect that at the beginning of the stage," Nibali said immediately on crossing the finish line. "Before the climb, too, I felt ok, but when it accelerated at the very end, I didn’t feel good."
The lost time bookends a mixed opening week of the Tour for Nibali, who was caught out in the crosswinds in Zeeland on stage 2 and lost more ground to Froome on Mur de Huy the following day. On the other hand, he was perhaps the best of the overall contenders on the pavé on stage 4, though he finished the day without anything to show for his efforts.
Nibali was, however, the best of the Big Four of pre-race favourites in the opening time trial in Utrecht, and he will hope that a strong showing from his Astana squad in Sunday’s testing team time trial to Plumelec can put a different slant on his race as the Tour breaks for its first rest day.
"I don’t know how the team time trial will go, but it will certainly the first real place where we can draw up a first balance sheet for the Tour – which, for me, so far, has not been good," he said.
The Astana team bus was parked at the foot of the climb, and as Martinelli waited for Nibali to make the descent by bike, he told reporters that he had not foreseen his team leader’s travails on Saturday afternoon.
"I wouldn’t have expected Vincenzo to lose 10 seconds this morning," Martinelli said. "He never said anything to make us think that he wasn’t feeling good. We saw in the finale that our riders brought him, and so we thought that everything was going as expected because there were only around 25 riders left at that point."
Martinelli was later asked whether Nibali’s showing on the short climb of Mûr de Bretagne was a reliable indicator of how he might perform on the longer passes of the Pyrenees and Alps. "If I could divine things from that, I’d tell you who was going to win the Tour," he said. "I can’t predict the future. Days like that happen, you understand. It’s not encouraging but today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow."
So far on this Tour, the Astana team has not performed to the same startling level as the squad who so dominated affairs at the head of the peloton at the Giro d’Italia in May (Tanel Kangert is the only man to tackle both races), but Martinelli was hopeful that they would leave Nibali in contention after Sunday’s team time trial.
"If we make no mistakes and ride the way we think we can, we’ll do a good time trial. There are teams who have been stronger than us so far but maybe tomorrow it will be our turn, alone against everybody else," Martinelli said, later looking to put the day’s events in perspective. "You don’t lose the Tour based on 10 seconds on the Mûr de Bretagne."
Martinelli will be all too aware, though, that the steady haemorrhaging of time will need to be arrested - and soon - if Nibali is to repeat his triumph of a year ago. A crucial 28 kilometres between Vannes and Plumelec await.